Communicating in a Fake News World

By Julie Knight

If you were President Trump’s PR person, what would your approach be?

What steps could United Airlines take to combat recent bad press?

Ever wonder if you should take a political or controversial stand in social media? By doing so, could you be risking the next job you seek or turning potential clients away?

These were just some of many compelling questions asked at our recent SF IABC member-only meeting, “Unprecedented: Being a Communicator in a Post-Election World.” Participants met at each of four roundtable discussion groups. Each table discussed a different topic of current interest.

Bold Message from CEO Delights Employees

Michele Wolpe, director of Employee Communications at Autodesk, facilitated a roundtable discussion about how to encourage your company to deliver more authentic communications.

Michele explained that just a few days after President Trump was elected, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass delivered a brave message to employees that began, “Like many of you, I was stunned at the outcome of the US election on Tuesday. It is unfathomable to me that the man our country has elected to be President so clearly lacks the character, relevant public service experience, and intellectual curiosity that qualifies one for this extremely important job.”

Carl’s message also emphasized that “regardless of how we feel about the results of the election, starting immediately . . . we should treat each other, our partners and our customers with respect since we don’t all share the same views.”

Employees so appreciated the authenticity and directness of the CEO’s email, they responded with more than 1,000 positive thank you messages.

Michele pointed out that it’s a “different world” today. “Leaders used to be able to get away with not talking about global events and political actions that impact us all. Now there’s a cost to playing it safe. This is our opportunity as communicators to help our leaders be more authentic.”

First Get Clear about Your Motives

Kamna Narain, SF IABC president, led a discussion about how social media can affect your personal brand. In her article on LinkedIn Pulse following the meeting, Kamna said, “While there are no clear-cut rules for social media, many of the participants at the SF IABC event agreed that posts on LinkedIn need to remain strictly professional.”

Before posting a political or controversial message to social media, Kamna advised, to first “get clear about your motives and the result you want. Ask yourself what is driving your need to share your views and opinions on social media. Do the same for your desired result and who you want to reach.”

What Would You Do?

The table discussing current PR disasters had some of the liveliest conversations, attendees agreed. Todd Nelson, principal at TnTpr, facilitated a conversation about what a company like United Airlines might do to counter widespread bad press.

“Several agreed that companies need to empower employees to make better decisions in the moment and not just rigidly stick to a policy out of fear of getting fired. A lot of people suggested that United could do a better job of training employees in crisis communication. I also liked one member’s suggestion that executives of United could try flying coach or even work as flight attendants to get a better understanding of challenges faced,” Todd said.

Musical Chairs Meets Speed Dating

“The Idea Exchange format gave me the freedom to move beyond the elevator pitch and get to the heart of industry and geopolitical issues with fellow communicators in a dynamic and candid way,” reflected Iolanthe Denman, an attendee and communications strategist, praising the fresh networking approach.

Iolanthe Denman, communications strategist

Stay True to Your Ideals

Another meeting attendee Scott Maier, senior public information representative of University Relations, University of California, San Francisco, said several communicators expressed a common belief that “in this era of communications, with Trump as president and almost everyone a citizen journalist with an iPhone, you have to remain true to your ideals and brand, either individually or as a company.”

He added that the biggest takeaway for him was that, “We can still serve as a trusted resource in these tumultuous times if we are bold, steadfast and honest in our message.”

Scott Maier, senior public information representative, UCSF


Meeting presenters included:

Kamna Narain, SF IABC president

Michele Wolpe, Autodesk Employee Communications director

Ed Kamrin, former SF IABC president

Todd Nelson, TnTpr principal


Check out Kamna’s 5 Steps for Communicators to Align Your Authentic Voice with Your Social Media Strategy and Michele Wolpe’s 5 Tips for Authentic Leadership in Critical Times.

If you haven’t yet, join our SF IABC group and follow our new SF IABC company page on LinkedIn.

Julie Knight is an award-winning, accredited business communicator. Her clients have included The Walt Disney Company, Starbucks, Cisco Systems, McKesson Corporation, and Hewlett-Packard to name a few. Connect with Julie on LinkedIn or


  1. Molly Walker says:

    Excellent summary of an event I wish I could have attended. Kudos to SF IABC for offering these kinds of topical discussions for our members.

  2. Thanks, Julie, for the writeup. This was a fun evening and I’m honored to have been a facilitator.

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